One of the things about being one year old is that you can’t tell anyone what it’s like in words. So even if you were so inclined (which you wouldn’t be as you wouldn’t have the cognitive equipment to think such thoughts), you can’t tell anyone what you think of your books.
This poses an interesting problem for me, the father of a one-year-old called Hal, trying to write about his experience of books. And things get further complicated by the fact that my own feelings about books and reading are highly likely to get muddled up with whatever Hal’s experiences might be. People who have grown up thinking that books are something special, that there is something to be revered about the act of reading and learning, are going to have a particular way of contemplating their offspring’s first encounters with words and images on a page. And if you aren’t careful you are going to see what you want to see rather than what Hal might see.
So what does Hal, already the possessor of quite a library, make of his books? Well, primarily books seem to be just another kind of toy for him at the moment. In our kitchen/living room there is a Hal-height shelf where we keep most of his books and he routinely hauls them out and plays with them. He clearly gets a lot of pleasure from his books and most days the bookshelf will get emptied out onto the floor. But the pleasure seems to be all to do with the book as a physical object. He loves turning pages backwards and forwards in exactly the same way that he loves opening and shutting the door of our washing machine. Lots of his books have flaps to lift up and tabs to pull – Lucy Cousins’ Maisy books are a big favourite – and he always reaches immediately for the bit that moves when he gets to a fresh page.
But surely a book is more for Hal than just an object with bits that are fun to move around? Well is it? When I sit Hal on my knee and ‘read’ a book with him I can’t help but notice that it is me, not him, who is interested in getting to the end. Hal is just as likely to start turning the pages back towards the beginning as he is to want to go in a nice sequence from beginning to end. And what does he make of the schematised drawings in a Maisy book? Realising that Maisy is a mouse might be beyond him anyway as he hasn’t ever seen a mouse, but what of the more familiar objects that he does know like tables and chairs, houses and cars?
For Hal to realise that a drawing of a table or chair in a Maisy book stands for an object in the real world is actually quite a step. He’d have to know that two different chairs were nevertheless the same kind of thing. And even more dramatically he’d have to connect a representation of chair with real chairs. At one year old, that is probably beyond him, and will be till he starts using language – another crucial form of symbols. So at the moment the Maisy pictures may just be coloured shapes to him, and, being coloured shapes, he is just as happy looking at a book upside down as he is if it is the right way up.
But Hal seems to value his books, and I’m sure that’s not just paternal wishful thinking. Alongside the books in the kitchen is a big basket of toys waiting for Hal’s attention. But on arrival in the kitchen is it the toys or the books that he heads for first? It’s the books every time. Perhaps he senses there’s more in them than has yet met his eye.
Roger Mills is a Psychodynamic Counsellor.